Faith and science

“We believed in a good God, a bad devil, a hot hell and, more than anything else, we believed that same God did not intend man should ever fly.” That was Bill Tate, postmaster at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, reflecting back on when the Wright brothers were first going about their business at the turn of the 20th century.

David McCullough’s latest book, “The Wright Brothers” (Simon and Schuster, $30) is a great read with two reminders. First, you never quite know where science can lead us fast. And second, postmasters generally do not make good theologians.

It is startling to realize how close the Wright brothers’ tremendous accomplishment in the first successful controlled airplane flight is to our own times. Both Wilbur and Orville were contemporaries of lives we know.

The historic flight was 112 years ago, Dec. 17, 1903. My granddad was 12 years old. Wilbur Wright died of typhoid, a young man of 45, on May 30, 1912, a few weeks after the first issue of Our Sunday Visitor rolled off the press. His brother, Orville, died on Jan. 30, 1948, at the age of 77. Pope Francis was 12 years old.

In a popular culture, where we look to history only to know where Alex Rodriguez stands in baseball stats or box-office comparisons for the latest “Jurassic Park” installment, the Wright brothers’ flight seems to have taken place contemporaneously with the Children’s Crusade. But the truth is, it is merely an historic blink of the eye from then to now.

One curious complaint about Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), is that it crosses back and forth from lyrical, mystical theology to hard science, as if the two should be ever divorced. Actually, I think we get in trouble when we split them up.

On the one hand, you end up like Postmaster Tate, believing that you turn a blind eye to science that appears to contradict prejudices confused with faith; or you end up with the scourge of “scientism,” a 19th-century philosophic relic that raises science to the level of the only infallible truth — a good excuse for inflicting all kinds of horrors on humanity.

The central Catholic understanding: Scientific fact cannot contradict true faith; and true faith will not contradict scientific fact. God is the God of all creation. Which is the Holy Father’s point.

One would have to be of “dull comprehension,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1903, not to realize things were better than they had ever been and would be “better still when new science and new methods, and new education have done their perfect work.”

That’s scientism. Just 11 years later, in this new and perfect universe, World War I began, killing roughly 17 million. And 36 years after that editorial, World War II began, with anywhere from 50 to 80 million deaths — the slaughter so horrific and universal that no one really knows for sure.

Orville was asked about the machine he invented with his brother and the horrific ways it had been put to use in World War II. “We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth,” Orville said, “but we were wrong.”

However, Orville went on to compare the invention of the airplane to the discovery of fire. The horror isn’t the thing itself, but in humanity’s abuse of it.

Which is why science so badly needs theology. Science barren of faith takes us down a path we never want to travel. Again.

When nothing seemed to be going well, Wilbur Wright was reminded of the coach who told his players, “Cheer up, boys, there is no hope.” Faith gives science hope. It’s what the Holy Father has in mind.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.